24. BRETT WHITELEY
When the Sydney wunderkind Brett Whiteley brought the present painting to Robin Gibson sometime in mid 1983 to be shown in his forthcoming solo exhibition, he stressed that the work be titled Self Portrait at 44.
Upon looking at the painting Gibson was somewhat nonplussed. It was not a portrait in any normally accepted sense; no facial features were represented; no physical details were shown, in fact, not one human attribute was depicted – there seemed nothing about it that cried “portrait”. When Gibson politely queried the appropriateness of the title, Whiteley replied: “Robin, when you get to the age of forty-four you will understand” – a beautifully deflecting reply that is almost as enigmatic as the painting itself.
Thirty-six years later, Gibson is still scratching his head about what exactly was meant by this sibylline comment – as are we.1
However, some things about the painting are clear: the work was created on or about 7 April 1983 – Whiteley’s forty-fourth birthday - and that it has some esoteric connection with that event. Beyond that we might add that it was first shown as catalogue number three in the exhibition Brett Whiteley: Some Recent Works: Birds (11), the Drought of 83 (7) at Sydney’s Robin Gibson Gallery from 30 July to 17 August 1983 and that it.is a stand-alone work with no explanatory notes, drawings or letters.
In other words, the painting is firmly unique. Now, of course, it must be stressed that all of Whiteley’s painting are literally unique (each being one of a kind) but that Self Portrait at 44 of 1983 stands out as paradoxically so – a type of uniqueness with a twist.
There is an interestingly subtle observation made about Whiteley in Janet Hawley’s much consulted book Encounters with Australian Artists. “What makes Whitely so special? His vision. You and I turn on a tap and drink plain water. Brett turns on the same tap and drinks, sees and smells in sixty flavours” – said a long-term friend.2 In other words, there is a heightened sensitivity that comes to the fore. It’s a moot point whether the effects of drugs caused such sensitivity or not. There is much to suggest that Whiteley did not paint under the influence of drugs and that their use was restricted to “down-time” periods. If this is the case, as is very highly probable, then Whiteley was guided by quite different sources.
It is worth remembering that Whiteley’s knowledge and admiration of Oriental art was, by the time of this painting, long established and that he could consciously “slip” into its modes of sensibilities; sensibilities that were already apparent in some of his works in the early Seventies. One of the most consistent characteristics of Oriental philosophic thought are those that arise from a disbelief in the veracity of external visual reality - in the reality that our senses convey to us. In this schema of thought the visible world is viewed as a type of apparition that clouds our appreciation of another world beyond the world of objective things. A Zen master does not just drink a glass of water but being aware of the act of drinking, imbibes something of the beauty and wonder of water itself. Whiteley would agree, if one feels and looks deep even a glass of water can be a minor miracle. Thus considered, our earlier tale of drinking water reveals something of the artist and his mentation. A poet would say that a child drinks, indeed gulps, water for the joy that it is; an adult drinks water because of thirst. It’s a matter of something other than and beyond the thing or act itself – of that being pointed out rather than the pointing; as the old Zen saying goes: “the wise man looks at the moon, the fool at the pointing finger”.
This slight diversion has its point. Whiteley’s Self Portrait at 44 of 1983 may be rightly considered as an analogical mirror of himself at a stage of pinpointed awareness of self. He could not have known it, but he had only nine years of life left to him - his private life was torridly torn – he had reached a “stop-sign” on life’s road. In his painting Self Portrait at 44 of 1983 Whiteley’s self-reflection hangs upon an analogical depiction; the painting exists as an ideogram (an idea-form) of his subjective experience of selfhood. Little wonder then that the present painting has such an unusual bittersweet balance and typifies his personalised belief in a circular cosmic movement between opposites.
The opposites, in this case, are made up of a slightly bedraggled crow or currawong contemplating a branched clump of collaged frangipani flowers. In Buddhism and Zen, the frangipani symbolises renewal and life’s resurgent rhythm as the delicate flower seems to arise, die and then grow again from a seemingly dead stalk. The suggestions are clear: the opposed connections in the painting are metaphoric and an analogical content wafts through the work. Thus, what we see made visible in Whiteley’s Self Portrait at 44 is a highly personalised “portrait” of the artist in a psychologically ruminative state; the work is not a visual symbol, but rather an internalized pictorial metaphor – the picture of a particular “mood” state or a revealing insight.
The composition of Self Portrait at 44 is decidedly oriental in its format and reminiscent of those of the artist Kawanabe Kyösai (1831-1889), one of the masters of ink drawings and woodblock prints. There is no way of knowing if Whiteley was influenced by this Japanese artist but the fact that he has added his personal stamp (lower right) makes it clear that he was quite familiar with traditional oriental compositional conventions. These conventions often also embody elements that are clearly evident in the present painting. For example, the incorporation of a movement from “roughly” painted sections to clearly finished sections; the diagonal directions that add asymmetrical visual interest; the lack of any background details to avoid distraction and the conscious restriction of colour to emphasise tonal differences. When considering the use of these compositional devices it is important to note that Whiteley does not “orientalise” his works in the manner of an amateur dilettante. Rather he incorporates and assimilates pictorial attributes that he admired and which lay beyond his purview in order to personalise that which existed within his own lived experience. That is, in much the same ways that he employed in his earlier paintings after he had seen the works of William Scott (1913-1989), Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Francis Bacon (1909-1992).
Whiteley’s painting Self Portrait at 44 is a rarely seen and privately held work, most recently in the collection of Sue Susskind. Its provenance is impeccable and it has been exhibited only twice in the thirty-six years since its creation. The painting has a deftly handled delicacy and it beams with a type of stable calmness that belies its fatefully internalised content – there is no bravura paint handling; no urgency; no anger and no angst-filled sombreness.
There is in Whiteley’s Self Portrait at 44 of 1983 not only a register of the passing of time but also a gentle sense of “overcoming” the anxieties of the present. The gravitating painting stands as a finely honed sublimation that transcends its subject matter. Needless to say, it is remarkably revealing of the state of mind of the artist at the time and all the more significant just for that.
1. Robin Gibson in conversation with the author 21 February, 2019
2. Hawley, Janet, Encounters with Australian Artists, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1993, p.43
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Brett Whiteley Studio, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2007
“Brett Whiteley”, obituary, The Times, London, 18 June, 1992
Adams, P., “Fame was the Spur”, The Australian, Sydney, Saturday 30 September 1995
Art Gallery of New South Wales, 9 Shades of Whiteley, Regional Tour, (Gold Coast Regional Art Gallery, Lismore Regional Gallery, New England Regional Art Museum, Maitland Regional Art Gallery, Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery), 12 July 2008 to 23 August 2009, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2008
Gray, R., “A Few Takes on Brett Whiteley” Art and Australia, vol. 24, no. 2, Summer, 1986
Hawley, Janet, Encounters with Australian Artists, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1993
Klepac, L., Brett Whiteley Drawings, Beagle Press, Sydney, 2014
McGrath, Sandra, Brett Whiteley, Sydney, Bay Books, 1979
Pearce, B., Brett Whiteley, Art and Life, Thames and Hudson and The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1995
Pearce, B.; Whiteley, W., Brett Whiteley: Connections, Tarrawarra Museum of Art, Healesville, 2011
Sutherland, K., Brett Whiteley: A Sensual Line, Melbourne, Macmillan, 2010
Wilson, A., Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing, Melbourne, Text, 2016
Wilson, G., Rivers and Rocks, Arthur Boyd and Brett Whiteley, Bundanon Trust, West Cambewarra, NSW, 2001
Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Former Principal Research Fellow and Head of the School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne
I wish to thank Robin Gibson, Director of Sydney’s Robin Gibson Gallery, for his kind help with the research for this commentary.